Friday, May 15, 2015

Should you translate everything? Or what?

For my own education and entertainment, I am translating a book of Japanese short stories. Simply deciding on the best English word is a routine challenge. For example, my dictionary often gives several synonyms for a Japanese word. For example, 言い訳する can mean "to make an excuse, to explain, to justify." Those three English words are all similar, but making an excuse is different than explaining or justifying one's action. This means that the translator has to consider the context in which the author has used 言い訳する to begin to approach the Japanese meaning.

In addition to these common decisions, I'm stumbling over what to do about a Japanese word for which there is no English equivalent. At one point, the wife is preparing a bento box lunch for her husband to take to work. She asks, "Do you also want natto?" 

Natto on a bed of rice
I am going to assume that enough Americans have eaten in Japanese restaurants so that they know what a bento box is. But what about natto? How many people who have not been to Japan have tried natto? According to Wikipedia, it's "a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto. Some eat it as a breakfast food. Nattō may be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture." There is, as far as I know (and I like natto), nothing like it in the West, so what is a translator to do?

You don't want to send your reader to Wikipedia in the middle of the story. You don't want to translate the wife's simple question as, "Do you also want soybeans fermented with bacillus subtilis?" 

My solution, which I am not happy with, is to footnote the word: "Fermented soy beans in a sticky web." If this were a book, another answer is to include a glossary at the back. A third approach is to avoid the word entirely and omit the wife's question or have her ask, "Do you also want something on the side?" I'm not happy with any of these and I'd be interested in other thoughts. If you have an opinion, I'd be delighted to hear it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What it's like to be psychotic

Elyn R. Saks knows what it's like to be psychotic and she wrote about it vividly in her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Her schizophrenia blossomed in her late teens and for twenty years she lived her life on two paths. On one, she was a high-achieving student, teacher, legal scholar, and tenured professor; a graduate of Vanderbilt University, Oxford University, and the Yale School of Law.

On the other path, she was a crazy woman, unable to distinguish delusion from reality, terrified by the voices in her head, babbling nonsense. What makes the book extraordinary is that Saks is able to show the reader what it's like to have a mind one cannot trust: "For some reason," she writes late in the book, "I decided that Kaplan [her psychoanalyst with whom she'd been working for years] and Steve [her oldest and closest friend] were imposters. They looked the same, they sounded the same, they were identical in every way to the originals—but they'd been replaced, by someone or something. Was it the work of alien beings? I had no way of knowing, but I was terrified."

Notice that in her psychosis she doesn't—she can't—question the reality of this switch. The two people closest to her have been replaced, and so she can no longer trust anything they say or do. No logic, no evidence will convince her otherwise. In this situation, psychoanalysis, the talking cure, is no help.

Fortunately there are drugs. Unfortunately the drug have side effects (although apparently pharmaceutical companies continue to improve the effectiveness and reduce the side effects). For years, however, Saks was convinced against all evidence to the contrary that she could control the voices in her head if she just tried harder. She was profoundly afraid of the drugs, both for the genuine harm they could do over time and because she would not admit she had a genuine disease that required drugs to ameliorate. She repeatedly took antipsychotic medication, felt better, and tried to taper off because she felt better and became an unwashed, babbling, terrified crazy lady.

The Center Cannot Hold is so powerful in places where Saks is almost entirely out of control, I wondered how she was able to write the book at all. This must be what it was like to have delusional thoughts about your therapist, who is only kind and helpful: "She is evil and she is dangerous. She keeps killing me. She is a monster. I must kill her, or threaten her, to stop her from doing evil things to me. It will be a blessing for all the other people she is hurting."

Because Saks is now a psychoanalyst herself, and because she has always been a high achiever when she could function, her memoir is both a personal story, which is fascinating, and a report on how people with mental health problems were treated in the 1980s and 90s, which is sobering. (One can only hope that the situation in American mental hospitals has changed.) She points out a classic bind for psychiatric patients: "They're struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others, and at the same time, they desperately need the help of those they're threatening to harm. The conundrum: Say what's on your mind and there'll be consequences; struggle to keep the delusions to yourself, and it's likely you won't get the help you need."

Saks was lucky. She managed to get the help she needed, and she's written a powerful book about a pernicious disease.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The American girl who gave Japanese women their rights

The Last Boat to Yokohama: The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman is a fascinating small book about an extraordinary woman. It includes an introduction by Gordon herself and an afterward by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes "It is a rare life treat for a Supreme Court Justice to get to meet a framer of a Constitution." In 1946 Gordon, 22 years old and a member of General Douglas MacArthur's Occupation staff, helped write the Japanese Constitution.

Gordon's father was Leo Sirota, an internationally famous concert pianist, born in Ukraine, a 1908 graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A successful concert tour in Japan in the late 1920s led to Leo moving his wife and six-year-old Beate (Bay-AH-tay) to Japan permanently in 1929. By the time she graduated from Tokyo's American high school in 1939, she was fluent in Japanese, English, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Given the international situation, college in neither Japan nor Europe seemed like a good idea and so she entered Mills College in Oakland, California.

Although her mother wanted to stay in the United States at the end of a visit to Beate in late 1941, her father insisted Japan would never attack such a big country and in November they took the last boat to Yokohama. While their lives did not change much during the first couple years of the war, by the last year, they were living in an unheated summer home in Karuizawa and bartering clothing for food and fuel.

Beate monitored Tokyo radio broadcasts for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. In 1944 she joined the Office of War Information as a writer and translator into Japanese of its propaganda broadcasts. In 1945 she moved to New York City to become an editorial researcher for Time magazine. When the war ended, and she received word that her parents were alive, she was able to join the Government Section of the General Headquartrs, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and return to Tokyo.

It was clear to the Occupation powers that Japan needed a new Constitution, one that would put it on a road to democracy. After two unsatisfactory attempts by the Japanese, MacArthur gave his staff nine days to write something acceptable. Beate, the only woman in the room (the title of her autobiography), contributed Article 24:

"Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

While there have been attempts to amend the Japanese Constitution since it was promulgated in 1946, they have all failed. And women, who were expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, now walk with equal rights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

David Rothenberg's remarkable fortune

Fortune in My Eyes
David Rothenberg's friend and literary agent told him, "Stop telling those stories and write them down." The result is Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, and while the writing is workmanlike rather than sparkling (he tends to name-drop) the life and observations more than make up for the prose.

A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.

In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.

While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."

In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.

So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.

With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."

Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.

He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"

The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reality always wins

I've lifted the second half of Martin Grebel's book title to headline this review because it's something I believe. The book is Reality Check: In the Battle Against Reality, Reality Always Wins. Its a short book by a clinical psychologist arguing for reality, starting with the problem of our beliefs.

How do we know that what we believe is real? In many cases, how do we even know what we believe? Many of our beliefs are formed in early childhood, long before we are capable of judging whether they are true or not. And once we have a belief, especially one that gives us our sense of identity, we tend to ignore or discount any evidence that contradicts the belief and to accept without question evidence that supports it. For example, a child growing up in a very troubled, poor, and uncaring family "would almost certainly develop far more negative beliefs about life" than one growing up in secure, loving family.

Grebel notes that parents have complained over the years that their children don't listen or still act inappropriately no matter how angry they get or how they threaten. If the parents do not change their beliefs about how to moderate a child's behavior—a belief usually based in how they were raised—nothing will change.

Grebel notes that science—"an intricate, subtle, and complex system used in acquiring knowledge and applying it to the knowable world"—is the most reliable model for evaluating beliefs. Science relies on accumulating evidence to determine whether a hypothesis or theory (or belief) is valid or invalid. The challenge, of course, is to recognize both one's beliefs and the evidence that contradicts it. (We usually don't have trouble recognizing the evidence that supports what we believe.)

When belief systems are invalid, he writes, "they often produce long-term negative effects on our well-being, while also lowering responsiveness to our real needs, wants, and feelings. In these instances we pay a double price: loss of self and coping with negative outcomes." For example, people who are overly self-directed tend to believe their viewpoints are not only correct but are the only valid view. "They believe that being aggressive in pursuing their own goals is always legitimate regardless of any negative impact it may have on others." Others, impacted negatively, may reject or sabotage or avoid (or all three).

While I think highly of Reality Check, I thought it could have been even better with an index and with more examples from sources other than Dr. Grebel's on practice. As it stands, it is almost an essentials text rather than fully exploring the subject—when I would like more. Nevertheless, Reality Check should make you think (always a good thing), and I recommend it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nantucket Five-Spot: An interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters

Nantucket Five-Spot by Steven Axelrod is subtitled "A Henry Kennis Mystery," but it's more thriller than mystery because we know (or should know) at page 14 who the bad guy is. We just have to see how much mayhem he plans to cause on Nantucket island one summer at the height of the tourist season.

Henry Kennis, the narrator, is Nantucket's chief of police. (Axelrod thanks Nantucket Police Chief William Pittnam "for his continuing advice and support.") The book starts with a bang. In the first paragraph, Kennis and Franny Tate, a former love, are having a romantic dinner overlooking Nantucket harbor "when the first bomb went off."

Almost immediately, the island is overrun with state police, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force agents as Kennis and his officers are elbowed aside for crowd control and "support."

Of course, Kennis and his staff know the island and the year-round residents—and the residents know their chief, an important factor. Indeed, Nantucket itself is virtually a character in a book filled with characters, and Axelrod's characters have strong feelings about the island's changing landscape (the second bomb partially destroys a nouveau country club).

As Kennis says about a careless driver, "That's something I hate. People who drive like that. Sometimes I want to arrest everyone—throw them all in jail, impound their cars and their cell phones and their computers and their TVs, and give their stupid McMansions which they use two week a year to the homeless people who need a roof over their heads."

Nantucket Five-Spot is satisfyingly complex with a pulse-raising conclusion. And, perhaps because Axelrod has an MFA in writing from Vermont College, the writing often crackles: "He was a slender man with lots of well-groomed blond hair framing his hawkish face, blue eyes set tight together, sharp nose, thin lips clinched around his indignation, sucking it like a sourball. He spoke with a slight southern accent...." Another example: "For some reason she reminded me of my daughter, soberly explaining that popping all the bubble wrap would make it easier to fit the plastic into the recycling can, when both of us knew she just wanted to do the firecracker dance."

For readers like myself who trip over foreshadowing, the novel did cause me to stumble once or twice: "Just how catastrophically, tragically, fatally bad that choice had been she was going to learn before the end of this close and humid summer day...." And as I wrote a moment ago, the story is complex with wheels within wheels that might put off some readers.

But on balance, I think Nantucket Five-Spot is an interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters, and a plot that edges right up to but never quite tips over into the preposterous.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What does it mean to be human?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler does not need my endorsement. It was short-listed for a Man Booker prize and nominated for Nebula Award for Best Novel. Barbara Kingsolver gave it a positive review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review when it was published in June 2013.

It is the story of Rosemary Cooke, her sister Fern, her older brother Lowell, her psychologist father, and her mother. It's an unusual story because Fern, virtually the same age as Rosemary, lives for the first five years of her life as part of an experiment to learn the effects of being raised within a human family— and the effect having a non-human "sister" has on Rosemary. But rather than tell you more about the story, let me tell you some of the reasons why I enjoyed the book so much:

1) Rosemary addresses the reader directly. She begins chapter 1: "So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996...In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known." Fowler tells us her story in a friendly and engaging voice and never has to resort to another point of view.

2) The story is plausible. I believe that Rosemary's memories of growing up with Fern could be a five-year-old's memories. I believe in her life as a college student at UC Davis. I believe everything that happens to her and the people around her could have happened.

3) The novel reports a healthy amount of scientific information about experiments into language acquisition and the differences between humans and chimps.

4) The characters, even the minor ones, seem fully drawn. (I'd like to study to see how Fowler does it because I would like to be able to do so myself.) These are people you could know.

5) The structure of the book is interesting. It is not a straightforward chronological account, and I can imagine that certain readers would be put off by this. I found it fascinating, however, by the way Fowler gives the reader information. For example, we don't learn that Fern is a chimpanzee until page 77. (There, I've spoiled it for you. But read the book anyway.)

6) The novel addresses good questions: What does it mean to be human? What are the ethics of experiment on animals? Do animals have any rights? Should they? Can we trust our memories? (No.)

A remarkable novel. Read it for not only the reasons I've just given but for your own pleasure.